China: Dynasties

Timeline of Chinese Dynasties and Other Key Events

A dynasty is when one family rules a country or region over a long period of time. Generally, the head of the family will be the ruler of the land, like an emperor or king. When that ruler dies, another member of the family will take power, usually the oldest son. When a new family takes control, then a new dynasty begins.

The Mandate of Heaven is what the Chinese people believed gave their rulers the right to be king or emperor. It meant that the gods had blessed that person with the right to rule. A ruler had to be a good and just ruler to keep the Mandate of Heaven.

2,000 BC
Early Chinese settlers build small villages and farm along the major rivers including the Yellow River and the Yangtze River.
~ 2696 BC: Rule of the legendary Yellow Emperor. His wife Leizu invented the process of making silk cloth.
2205 – 1575 BC: The Chinese learn how to make bronze.
1600 BC
Xia (Hsia)
The Xia Dynasty becomes the first dynasty in China.
1050 BC
Capitals: near Zhengzhou & Anyang
One of the Three Dynasties, or San Dai (Xia, Shang, and Zhou), thought to mark the beginning of Chinese civilization: characterized by its writing system, practice of divination, walled cities, bronze technology, and use of horse-drawn chariots.
256 BC
Zhou (Chou)
Capitals: Hao (near Xi’an) & Luoyang
A hierarchical political and social system with the Zhou royal house at its apex: power was bestowed upon aristocratic families as lords of their domains or principalities.
Western Zhou
(1046-771 BC)
Eastern Zhou
(771-256 BC)
Spring and Autumn Period
(770-475 BC)
Confucius (551-479 BC)
544 BC: Sun Tzu the author of the Art of War is born.
Cast iron is invented in China around this time. The iron plough was likely invented shortly after.
Warring States Period
(475-221 BC)
The crossbow is first used in China.
206 BC
Capital: Chang’an, (Xi’an)
Qin Shihuangdi becomes the first Emperor of China. He created a unitary state by imposing a centralized administration and by standardizing the writing script, weights and measures. Known for its harsh methods of rule, including the suppression of dissenting thought.
Qin Shihuangdi has the Great Wall of China built by extending and connecting existing walls to protect the people from the Mongols.
The umbrella is invented.
Qin Shihuangdi dies, 210 BC, the Terra Cotta Army is buried with him.
206 BC-
220 AD
Modified and consolidated the foundation of the imperial order. Confucianism was established as orthodoxy and open civil service examinations were introduced. Han power reached Korea and Vietnam.
Emperor Wu defines the Taichu calendar which will remain the Chinese calendar throughout history.
8 – 22 AD: The Xin Dynasty overthrows the Han Dynasty for a short period of time.
2 AD: A government census is taken. The size of the Chinese Empire is estimated at 60 million people.
105 AD: Paper is invented by Imperial court official Cai Lun.
208: Battle of Red Cliffs.
Western Han
(206 BC-9 AD)
Capital: Chang’an
Confucianism officially established as basis for Chinese state by Han Wudi (r. 141-86 BC)
Eastern Han
Capital: Luoyang
Six Dynasties
The empire was fragmented. The North was dominated by invaders from the borderland and the steppes. The South was ruled by successive “Chinese” dynasties.
Buddhism is introduced to China
Three Kingdoms
Cao Wei (220-265)
Shu Han (221-263)
Dong Wu (222-280)
Jin Dynasty
Western Jin (265-316)
Eastern Jin (317-420)
Northern &
Song (420-479)
Qi (479-502)
Liang (502-557)
Chen (557-589)
Northern Wei (i386-534)
Eastern Wei (534-550)
Northern Qi (550-577)
Western Wei (535-556)
Northern Zhou (557-581)
Capital: Chang’an
609: The 1,776 km Grand Canal is completed – the longest canal in the world starting at Beijing, passes through Tianjin and the provinces of Hebei, Shandong, Jiangsu and Zhejiang to the city of Hangzhou, linking the Yellow River and Yangtze River.
China is reunified
Capitals: Chang’an & Luoyang
A time of cosmopolitanism and &
cultural flowering. This period was the height of Buddhist influence until its repression around 845.
868: Wood block printing is first used in China to print an entire book called the Diamond Sutra.
Active territorial expansion until defeated by the Arabs at Talas in 751.
Five Dynasties
Later Liang (907-923)
Later Tang (923-936)
Later Jin (936-946)
Later Han (947-950)
Later Zhou (951-960)
Song (Sung)
An era of significant economic and social changes: the monetization of the economy; growth in commerce and maritime trade; urban expansion and technological innovations.
Moveable type for printing is invented.
1044: This is the earliest date that a formula for gunpowder is recorded.
1088: The first description of the magnetic compass.
1200: Genghis Khan unites the Mongol tribes under his leadership.
1271: Marco Polo begins his travels to China.
Northern Song
Capital: Bianjing (Kaifeng)
Southern Song
Capital: Lin’an (Hangzhou)
The Mongols under Kublai Khan defeat the Song Dynasty. Kublai Khan establishes the Yuan Dynasty.
The reign of the Mongol empire;

Capital: Dadu (Beijing)
Dramas, such as the Story of the Western Wing, flourished.
Re-establishment of rule by Han ruling house;
Capitals: Nanjing & Beijing
The first Ming emperor, Hongwu, laid the basis of an authoritarian political culture. Despite early expansion, it was an inward-looking state with an emphasis on its agrarian base. Gradual burgeoning of the commercial sector; important changes in the economy and social relations in the latter part of the dynasty; also a vibrant literary scene as represented by publication of the novel Journey to the West.
1405: Chinese explorer Zheng He begins his first journey to India and Africa. He will establish trade relationships and bring back news of the outside world.
1405: The Chinese begin construction on the Forbidden City.
1420: Beijing becomes the new capital of the Chinese Empire replacing Nanjing.
1517: Portuguese traders first arrive in the country.
Reign of the Manchus;
Capital: Beijing
A Manchu dynasty. Continued the economic developments of the late Ming, leading to prosperity but also complacency and a dramatic increase in population. The acclaimed novel Dream of the Red Chamber was written in this period.
February 12, 1912: Puyi, the last Emperor of China looses his reign.
of China
Capitals: Beijing, Wuhan & Nanjing
Weak central government following the collapse of the dynastic system in 1911-12; The Qing Dynasty comes to an end with the Xinhai Revolution. Western influence was shown by the promotion of “science” and “democracy” during the New Culture Movement. The attempt of the Nationalist government (est. 1928) to bring the entire country under its control was thwarted by both domestic revolts and the Japanese occupation (1937-45). The Nationalists fled to Taiwan after defeat by the Communists.
For a short period of time in 1917, Puyi was restored to the throne by the Chinese warlord Zhang Xun. He only ruled for twelve days (July 1 to July 12), before the republican government took back control.
of China
Capital: Beijing
Communist government. The drive for remaking society ended in disasters such as the 1958 Great Leap Forward and the 1966 Cultural Revolution. Economic reform and political retrenchment since around 1978.
Portions by Michael Tsin, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. © 1995 Columbia University, Asia in Western and World History: A Guide for Teaching, (Ainslie Embree and Carol Gluck, eds., Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharp Inc. 1995). Supplemented and updated by Toby Simkin.
May 21st, 2018|